Who’s This Week’s Hero, Johnny?
This week we celebrate a man who is keeping up established goalkeeping traditions of being a little bit of an eccentric. Last week’s hero was Sunderland academy product Jordan Henderson; today’s was there from eight years old.
After nine years in their youth set-up, he was promoted to the first team in 2011. He spent much of his early years often being loaned out to lower league clubs such as Darlington, Alfreton Town, Burton Albion, Carlisle, Bradford City and Preston, before returning to play in their first team in January 2016 at a time when Sunderland were easily one of the worst teams in the league. He got lots of experience in picking the ball out of the net, but impressed all the same which in itself is quite an achievement.
He made the Young Player of the Year shortlist in 2017. Even though the Wearsiders were relegated, he managed to enhance his reputation not just as an excellent keeper, but as a superb distributor. It has to be said, he’s also been involved in a few pub and club-based contretemps when refuelling after a match, which is also surely one of the English game’s most enduring traditions.
A £25million move to Everton in 2017 and an elevation up the England ranks now sees him at the top of his profession still only aged 25, which is just 12 and a half in goalkeeping years, as they mature at half the speed of outfield players. That’ll be Jordan Pickford, then
What Have They Done To Deserve This Then?
This week he not only saved the penalty for England to give his country third place in the Nations League finals, but he also lashed home one of the spot kicks himself under huge pressure as the fifth man and with all penalties converted to that point. This comes after an excellent World Cup in 2018 when he made MotM in the win over Sweden. He was also a star of the penalty shoot-out against Columbia, and his celebrations became iconic of England’s resurgence in slaying their demons.
What I personally love about him is firstly he put in some hard yards on loan to lower-league clubs to get experience. That can be tough for a young player being away from home but it is testament to his determination to improve that by the time his loans were done, he was indeed a far better player. And secondly, I love that he’s got attitude to burn. This is also what those who don’t like him point to as a negative, of course. But in these days where it feels like there is a sizeable amount of intolerant people who are just waiting to be offended, or to mock and eviscerate (the whole ‘short arms’ thing, for example), Pickford is the exception to the rule. At at time when characterful, even eccentric people are being hounded out and life has become less joyful, he is a welcome reprieve.
If you just look at his stance in front of the ball before he took the penalty against the Swiss, you can see what he’s all about. It is very Ronaldo-esque. There he is, legs apart, planted firmly, standing three strides back from the ball, stock still. There’s no messing around, no pulling of shirt and socks, no stutter. Nah. He just stands there and the vibe is a very strong, “I’m going to batter the living f*ck out of this and you’re not going to save it.”
And that’s exactly what he does: a penalty that thrilled through its sheer power. But our Jordan is not finished yet. He plants a hard left foot and punches the air, screaming all the while, his face a shade of raspberry ripple. This is what we want to see. None of this too cool for school business; primal screaming is the way to go.
And then he pulled on his gloves to save the sixth Swiss penalty with the sort of athletic leap which belies his solid-looking frame. He’s a bloody good penalty saver, having kept three out last season in the Premier League.
Oh and he did this. Let’s enjoy it again.
Anyone Grumpy About It?
There are some churlish souls who reserve a special flavour of mockery for the man I think we must call Picky, Picks or Picko for his general exuberance, noisy pre-match chest-beating, and mid and post-match celebrations. He’s a 6′ 1″ wall of extremely agile meat; sometimes I wonder if those who take against a player for their attitude or appearance are really just laying off their own feelings of inadequacy on a readily available target. Someone with Jordan’s in-your-face attitude perhaps winds some up more than most. The more nasty insulting of players is one of football’s worst traits, albeit one all of us have indulged in at one time or another.
His strutting, punch-the-air, up-yours, bait-the-crowd attitude is all part of his psychological make-up, the same one that makes him great between the sticks. For him to cut this out of his game totally would require him to be someone he isn’t and no good comes from that. One does suspect it is sometimes born out of nerves and let’s face it, no player is under the same level of scrutiny as the keeper, so it is no surprise that those who put their hand up for the gig are often blessed with forceful, OTT attitudes. The goal is no place for a shrinking violet.
Like all glovemen, he has made his share of goofy goalie errors – the one against Liverpool to let Divok Origi to score being one of the more garish misjudgements, along with deciding to play rugby at Newcastle. Sometimes it seems that such mistakes are part of a youthful immaturity and desire to look good and even a bit flash. But at 25 it’s worth remembering that he’s probably not even halfway through his career yet. For a goalie, he’s reached the top at a tender age.
What Was The Media Response?
They loved it. I was listening to 5 live. Ian Dennis was commentating on his penalty : “…and he HAMMERS the ball!” Chris Sutton, cackling, exclaimed: “What a pen that was! A sort of Ronaldo pose before he took it and he whips that…all sorts of pace on it!”
Jordan is an easy target for the media both in a good and bad way. It’s been unkindly suggested that our man would not be first choice for a Brains Trust, but then keeping goal doesn’t require you to have an extensive knowledge of quantum physics or the history of Italian Poor Art. And how many professors of mathematics would have the sheer b*llocks to win a penalty shootout in a World Cup?
Being the subject of tabloid stories for getting caught up in fights is inevitable in this day and age; the fact he seems the sort of chap not to take a backward step ensures that some wind-up merchant looking to be a 5 o’clock hero might provoke our man. However, you’ve got to say, he never shirks his media duties and always fronts up any mistakes he’s made, which is very much part of the same character trait of the man who might give you a right hander in a pub if you get out of line.
He himself recently acknowledged that dishing out a bit o’ a battering in a pub car park was best avoided.
“I think the main thing about it is that I am a normal lad – but then sometimes you have got to realise you are not a normal lad, you are an England footballer.”
This is a dilemma many players must have to deal with. Inside your own head, you’re still you – the same person you’ve always been – but the outside world deals with you differently because of your status as a footballer. And also, for all you may consider yourself a normal lad, you simply are not. You are at the top of your profession doing something to an incredibly high standard. That’s just not ‘normal’. It can’t be easy to adjust to it.
“I’ve got a little baby now and life has changed so with the little baby and my missus, it is a totally different lifestyle now and it is great,” said Pickford this month. “It was just one of them things, I don’t think there is much more to say. You learn from everything, how to become a man and grow.”
So hopefully there’ll be no stripped to the waist fighting on the cobbles in future.
What The People Say
As is becoming something of a tradition, we start with a Haiku
Fly through the air with
Mind bending athleticism
Vanquisher with Hart
And now the rest…
‘I genuinely think he has the potential to be great. First goalkeeper to really show the results of the FA’s investment with their blueprint for play, i.e noticeably good with his feet and general technique. Seems like a normal lad too which should be commended.’
‘As a Reds fan, I think I’m contractually bound to mock Pickford. However, I think he’s a great keeper and character and love him for England. I just hope he doesn’t go the way of Joe Hart and end up too psyched-up.’
‘He strikes me as the type of lad that would go on holiday and be really proud of how sunburnt he got. He’s a bit mad, but he keeps things interesting.’
‘As an Evertonian, I wouldn’t swap him for anyone. He makes mistakes – all goalkeepers do – and he has some work to do on his technique, but he already has the swagger and arrogance that all goalkeepers need. It’s the aura as much as the hands that repels the ball – he knows that.’
‘He likes his boxing. Went to school with a couple of members of @gbboxing squad and came to GB Boxing Championships last year. Came into gym to chat with coaches and staff. Very down to earth and seemed like a good guy.’
‘I think he’s the first England goalkeeper in my lifetime (Shilton onwards) where I’ve not been baffled as to why he’s in the team.’
‘Excellent role model for a region which needs good male role models – same said for Henderson too.’
‘Glorious radgy Mackem. Never more than 30 seconds away from an astonishing save or a frank exchange of views. Like all humans, he makes mistakes, but that just makes him more human and he wears the badge of England’s number one with Lionheart pride.’
‘He provides a bit of fun in a time when football can take itself too seriously.’
‘He is a human version of a Yates’ Wine Lodge at that moment in the evening when all is right in the world.’
‘Toon fan and he gave me my greatest moment as an England fan ever! That pen save vs Colombia was amazing.’
‘Quality reactions and great passing.’
‘He is hilarious when he gets wound up, bless him.’
Feels like England haven’t had a GK that’s had the confidence to command his back 4/5 for a long time, part of that due to turn over at CB. But you’ve also got a lot of faith in him in 1-1 situations. Honesty and bravery endearing to fans, slightly different to Hart, James etc.
‘Gets a shed load of unnecessary criticism, especially from fans of clubs that have done absolutely nothing to contribute to the England goalkeeping situation for 20 years.’
What Does The Future Hold?
Everton seems like a good club at which to consolidate the leap in profile he made in 2017. As he settles down with age and cuts out some of the more glaring errors in his game, he should end his 20s as one of the best goalkeepers in Europe. To see him ping an accurate 75-yard pass out of his hand, splitting a defence wide open, is to see one of the best exponents of the artform around today.
He is already one of the best penalty savers in the league and if he keeps up these impressive elements to his game, it wouldn’t be hard to see him at a club more sizeable even than Everton one day. We can only hope that his excellent England performances continue too. The only doubts anyone has about Jordan is the propensity to drop a major b*llock at any time, but then, he wouldn’t be the first brilliant keeper who was capable of throwing one in and he won’t be the last.